Hidden Secrets of a Cross-Country Skier

Finding joy, health and companionship in the contemplative realm of cross-country skiing. Here are a few of the winter secrets known best by those who venture into the cold.

Trail Mix

Whether gliding along in the two slots of a classically set track, blazing by on a skate-groomed path or being challenged by the steeps on the wild ways, cross-country skiers have a bountiful menu of trail offerings along fields, through forest, by valleys and on hills.

Jackson Ski Touring Foundation's Ellis River Trail tends to receive accolades and for good reason; it is a scenic ramble along the river, with a warming hut and one-way sections. Call it civilized and well-loved as portions were re-routed and upgraded and a new concrete and steel bridge installed after Irene blew through in August. But if the Ellis is bucolic, its fiery brother the Wildcat Valley Trail is an expert-only romp with a 3,000-foot vertical drop down the backside of Wildcat Mountain along a ridge and through delightful birches.

With the snow-capped Presidential Range and red-roofed Omni Mount Washington Hotel serving as backdrops, the 62-mile Bretton Woods Nordic Center contains a myriad of choices including the flat-to-rolling B&M Trail to rushing Upper Falls. The trail is a basic straight shot through the woods with some ending rollers to an outstanding bridge and gorge. Get a little crazy and ride the Bethlehem Express lift at the downhill area for a five-mile winding journey down Mountain Road.

At the base of rugged Mount Washington in Pinkham Notch, Great Glen Trails serves up varied terrain with playful names. Make your way to beginner and intermediate trails like Clementine Wash, Great Grumpy Grade, Hairball Passage and Dragon Corridor for a nice mix.

See the Saco River in a new light, skiing along its banks at Bear Notch Ski Touring in Bartlett on trail 16 or Intervale's Mount Washington Valley Ski Touring Center's Riverside and Intervale trails. Venture beyond Town Square and the popular Corcoran's Pond at Waterville Valley. Divided into North and South End, the North has some frosty views of Mount Tecumseh while racers ply Upper Criterion in the South.

Ski from inn-to-inn along the Franconia Village X-C Ski Center trails, first warming up on the easy Airfield Loop by the Franconia Inn before venturing on Middle Earth and Charlie's Trails to the Horse and Hound Inn.

Windblown in New Ipswich is a Monadnock area staple. Gentle double-tracked trails like Pond Loop and Picnic Pines combine for serenity and scenery while black diamond-level skiers contend with the daunting terrain of Barrett Mountain.

Southern Trails

Cross-country skiing is for any altitude and requires no hills, so the southern tier of the state has lots of great spots to try. Check out Pine Hill in New London, Windblown in New Ipswich and Wolfeboro's Nordic Skier. There is also skiing at Dartmouth's Cross-Country Ski Center, Gunstock and Keene's Granite Gorge. There is the Bedford Cross-Country Ski Club that skis at Legacy Park. The New England Nordic Ski Association is a good resource for trail tips.

WMNF: Ski it if you can

Cross-country skiers will find wild snow in the White Mountain National Forest. Though the miles of trails don't exactly get the same TLC by groomers at touring centers, skiers won't be disappointed by wintry trails found along the Kancamagus Highway, along Route 16 in Pinkham Notch and other places. Plus, it's a steal at $3 for a daily pass found at trailheads or $25 for the annual Recreation Pass.

Stop in

Touring centers are loaded with rustic cabins, huts and circular tents called yurts. Not only are shelters welcome respites from cold winter days, but they are destinations unto themselves to rest, grab lunch or have hot chocolate. Many are warmed by wood stoves and are situated near
scenic vistas. So pop in! (Click here for White Mountain Yurts for a good example)

Hometown Hero: Kris Freeman

Andover's Kris Freeman has competed in three Olympics: 2002, 2006 and 2010. A diabetic, he notched three top-10 finishes and also won the 50-kilometer classic U.S. title during the 2011 season. The U.S. Ski team member has some of the best American cross-country distance results since the early 1980s.

Along the Way

Though solitude is often sought in the tranquility of the woods while skiing, cross-country skiers are rarely alone.

Animals leave prints behind in the snow, turning the winter trails into a bit of a guessing game for those interested in identifying what else has been in the neighborhood. Birds also leave telltale signs.

Guidebooks and small pocket cards are excellent identifying aids, fitting nicely in zippered pockets and packs.

Mammals make different kinds of tracks based on size, width and stride. Was it a bounder, a leaper, possibly a perfect walker? Prints come with all sorts of clues.

Skiing along a river or stream bank could mean animals that live along the water, like beavers, mink or muskrat, are in the area. The New Hampshire woods teem with deer and their side-by-side two-toed imprints. Chances are it's deer, but size and depth could also mean moose are about.

Little voles become a bit more intriguing in winter, often scurrying about in snow tunnels and leaving tiny tail marks. Snowshoe hares tend to frequent the same travel lanes in winter, and often their forefeet look like only one depression instead of two. Cats, dogs, fox, rodents, weasels and other animals frequent the forest too.

But not all signs are in the snow. The jack-hammering of the pileated woodpecker can be heard from afar while eagle-eyed skiers might come upon the odd sack-style nest of an oriole hanging in a tree. Moose eat bark and favor red maples. Called moose barking, their teeth marks signal where they've been.

Skiers might hear the fee-bee call of the black-capped chickadee in the mixed deciduous and coniferous forests, the song's inflection changing from greeting among other chickadees to staking its territory. Though cardinals tend to live on the edge of the forest, they may be spotted along trails with a stark flash of color.

So enjoy the solitude, but know the trails through the forest are busy with activity.

Don't Forget Pine Hill

New London's passionate Nordic skiers formed the Pine Hill Ski Club in 2005 and now maintain about 15 miles of rolling terrain in the area. Largely groomed for classic style, there's about a mile of skate lane and one mile for pets. On Saturdays they usually open rustic Robb's Hut for snacks. Check them out at pinehillskiclub.com.


"Track Finder" by Dorcas Miller is a fine resource ($4.95)

Clubs and organizations like the AMC and Albany's Tin Mountain Conservation Center often offer snowy adventures and may supply tracking cards for free or at a cost.

Hoot Night

It's not exactly a secret and you don't have to arrive on skis, but one of the most popular jam sessions in the state takes place each Tuesday at the Wildcat Inn and Tavern, where it has packed in music lovers and winter sports enthusiasts since 1980. Hoot Night Host Jonathan Sarty takes the stage each night at 8 p.m. to create an incredible blend of music as legendary local performers arrive with guitars in hand. You can hear local favorites Bennett and Perkins. The Bennett is Kathy and the Perkins is Thom, who is also the longtime executive director of the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation and something of a guru to the ever-growing ranks of disciples of the sport of cross-country.

The Art of X-country

Thom Perkins' artistic career started not as a musician but as a sculptor. He says the two forms have found a perfect blend in what he does now, overseeing the cutting and grooming of Jackson's ski trails. "I've trained my groomers to take pride in the visual characteristics of the trails. The way the corners work, the intersections happen, it's a work of art." And skiing a beautiful trail is like dancing in the forest, he says. "When I ski there is music in my head."

January Trails

January 7 is Winter Trails Day with select areas offering free XC and snowshoe opportunities.

Select areas in NH may have discounted or free introductory XC lessons during January's Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month. See SkiNH for more information.

Trail's End Pleasures

Pleasant rewards are deserved following a day burning off all those calories and awakening those rusty, dormant muscles. Wintry pleasures abound just off the groomed path.

Warm up with a cup of thick clam chowder in the comfortable Wildcat Tavern on Main Street in Jackson Village following a robust jaunt. Let a hot stone massage at nearby Debony Salon pacify those tired muscles.

Get out of the cold and into the steam rooms or sauna at the luxurious spa at the Omni Mount Washington Hotel after skiing Bretton Woods, where an Adventurer's Massage soothes and relieves the aches. The pine-paneled friendly tavern at the Horse and Hound Inn at 205 Wells Road in Franconia is where you'll find creative concoctions destined to leave you happy after exploring area trails. Loon Mountain skiers schussing along the flowing Pemigewasset River can join the après-ski crowd in the lively Paul Bunyan Room in the Octagon Lodge. Located off the challenging Internet Trail at Wolfeboro's Nordic Skier Touring Center, the Bistro at the Inn on Main (formerly the Lakeview Inn at 200 North Main St.) opened in November and will host skiers in its dining room featuring ingredients from local farms and casual bar with light fare.

Snowed Inn

Cross Country Skiing in Jackson by Joanna Reike

Come to Jackson for cross-country skiing and you will discover an unparalleled combination of history, hospitality and haute ski touring right here in New Hampshire.

With more than a dozen world-class bed and breakfasts, grand hotels and eateries sprinkled along the trail system, the Alpine village offers the ultimate circuit for winter pleasures both on and off the snow.

"I cannot conceive of Jackson without cross-country skiing," says Thom Perkins, executive director of the Jackson Ski Touring Foundation. "It's not manufactured. The history of the sport evolved out of the community and remains authentic."

While most of Jackson's first settlers were artists and wealthy summer vacationers, skiers provided the soul and lifeblood of the village.

"It's a life sport, not a lifestyle sport," says Perkins, who has witnessed generations of residents grow up skiing and carry on the tradition.

In 1936 legendary skier, Carroll Reed, founded the Austrian-inspired Eastern Slope Ski School, drawing visitors to Jackson year-round. Skiing grew fashionable and at one point, Saks Fifth Avenue hired Reed to run a ski shop out of Wildcat Tavern.

Not much has changed since the luxurious past. Plenty of opportunities still exist for guests to ski from inn to inn, stopping to indulge in a gourmet meal, a massage at the spa or simply to relax by the fireplace.

With over 154km of diverse terrain at your feet, it would be a challenge to traverse all the trails in one stay and even more difficult to highlight the many unique establishments along the way.

"Skiing is the main reason why people come to Jackson," says Larry Baima, owner of the Thompson House Eatery, "and yet, we realize the skiing wouldn't be the same without what we offer. It's the total experience."

On a clear morning, get a seat by the window inside the Inn at Jackson to catch a glimpse of the snowcapped summit of Mt. Washington over breakfast. As a guest you will be treated to a three-course rotating menu of delicious blueberry pancakes and thick French toast stuffed with cream cheese and raspberries.

Entering the Inn at Jackson for the first time feels like coming home. Fresh baked cookies await your arrival as the friendly innkeeper, Adina Gagne, asks about your day. Named after prominent figures in New England history, the 19-room, four poster-style bedrooms are open and inviting. Help yourself to a glass or open your own bottle at the bar before reflecting on the day in the hot tub under the stars. Owners Don and Joyce Bilger recently updated the décor with the help of local designer Lisa MacAllister to create a sophisticated and casual atmosphere. Their careful attention to detail adds a personal touch while preserving the design by original New York architect Stanford White. Leave your car at the inn since, according to Bilger, "the trails are groomed right up to the parking lot so you can ski out the door."

Ask the staff at Jackson Ski Touring Foundation where to spot scenic views and they will circle nearly every trail on the map. If you've never skied before, gravity is on your side. Picturesque vistas can be accessed from various elevations, and the center offers rentals and certified instruction for all abilities.

"Whether they're backcountry skiers in expedition gear, racers hoping to train for the Olympics or families who just want to get outside in the winter for exercise, we have something for every level," says Perkins.

Stretch your legs on Christmas Farm Trail, skating across a flat, open ridge overlooking the Presidential Range. Skiing side by side, you can share stories with company and savor each point of the day at your own pace. Best of all, the only lines you will encounter are the ones you make in the snow.

If you can make it, glide down The Wave, a unique 15,000-foot earth sculpture simulating the crests and troughs of an ocean swell. Returning from the loop, warm up inside Christmas Farm Inn with a flaky bowl of French onion soup.

Farther up the road, take a run over sunny meadows perched atop the golf course at Eagle Mountain House. The 9th hole marks the site of the nation's oldest ski school and the grand hotel is one of Jackson's original cottages. Even if you are not a guest, stop in for a bite to eat in the historic tavern, which Front Office Manager Daisy Stephenson says is popular for the "ski in, ski out" convenience.

For lunch in town, locals head to the White Mountain Cafe* or J-Town Deli for homemade chili and roasted vegetable wraps. A hand-painted sign along the winding Ellis River Trail points to "the" short for the Thompson House Eatery, luring skiers to healthy salads and locally grown provisions.

A day on the trails would not be complete without après ski. Unstrap your boots and stroll down the gas-lit Main Street to visit shops adorned with glistening garlands. Toast to the town at Red Fox Bar and Grille with the classic B&B combination: burgers and beer.

If you go in late January, the Shovel Handle Pub would be the perfect place to watch participants from the Snow Sculpting Festival as they work under the lights at Black Mountain next door. Squeeze in last call at Shannon Door or the landmark watering hole, Wildcat Tavern, for a pint and live music.

Since trail passes barely break a twenty and are often included in your stay, you can extend a day trip to a long weekend. If you really want an economical fare, sneak off mid-week from late February to March. Lower rates will allow you to splurge on all the finer things like the award-winning wines at the Inn at Thorn Hill or Swiss chocolate fondue surrounded by the turn-of-the-century grandeur of The Wentworth.

Traveling from Boston, Europe and abroad, people come to Jackson in search of the quintessential New England experience. In the guest book visitors from around the world describe this ideal with synonymous terms: cozy, charming, delightful, perfect, classic, romantic.

Once you cross over the covered bridge into Jackson, your vocabulary, too, may expand on these warm adjectives and there will be many blank pages waiting for you to fill. Whatever the trail may bring, take comfort in knowing your story will be signed, Traditionally Yours, Jackson. NH

*We previously listed As You Like it as the name of the bakery. The White Mountain Cafe, which has locations in Gorham and now Jackson, has taken over the space.

Categories: Outsider, Seasonal Guides – Winter